High-Speed Rail Faces Inevitable Complaints

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

Here’s the first rule all new council members learn: The sewer plant has to go somewhere. And the neighbors are never going to be happy about it.

Substitute “high-speed rail line” for “sewer plant” and you see one of the main problems the $68 billion construction project is facing.

A lot of folks who should know better don’t seem to realize that.

Take, for example, a recent Associated Press story about the troubles the rail project is facing in the Central Valley. The folks quoted in the story included a Fresno man who’s losing his restaurant to the project, a Hanford engineer whose home is on the proposed rail line, a raisin grower who will have to sell some of his farmland to the project and a Chowchilla almond farmer whose groves are endangered.

Of course these people are upset and want to see the project stopped. All the talk in the world about the benefits the rail project will bring to the state, their communities and the people of California, valid though it may be, doesn’t take away from the fact that they will lose their business/home/field/orchard.

The NIMBY position, which is behind a bunch of the complaints, charges and lawsuits that have bedeviled the high-speed rail project, stems from a perfectly logical question: Why should I have have to pay the price and deal with the inconvenience of this project?

Or, to put if more bluntly, “It’s not fair.”

That’s a cry that’s heard at every city council, school board, planning commission and board of supervisors meeting in the state whenever a major — or not so major — project comes up for a vote.

But if a project benefits the larger public, it has to go somewhere, despite the inevitable screams from the people affected by it.

No one’s saying that the high-speed rail plan isn’t a controversial subject. Although prep work on the first section from Madera to Fresno has begun, actual construction has been on hold while the state tries to deal with a Sacramento Superior Court decision earlier this year that questioned whether the current plan is the same as the one that was approved by voters when they overwhelmingly approved a $10 billion bond measure in 2008.

A September poll by the Los Angeles Times and the University of Southern California found that 52 percent of Californians no longer approved of the high-speed rail project, with many calling it a waste of money.

Although in true California fashion, even larger majorities approved of the benefits to employment and transportation the project would bring, they just didn’t want to pay for it.

Then you have people like former state Sen. Quentin Kopp, a born-again opponent of the project arguing that the rail project, “should have public support if it is to go forward.”

Now Kopp, who spent time as a San Francisco supervisor before his Sacramento sojourn, knows better than that. Measures have to pass once and voters — and legislators — typically don’t get a do-over.

Not that everyone is asking for one. Gov. Jerry Brown has been a strong proponent of the rail plan, along with federal transit officials. If Brown gets re-elected next year, as just about everyone except Tim Donnelly and Abel Maldonado expects, that’s four more years of high-level support.

Then there’s the business angle. Even before the high-speed rail bond went on the ballot, Central Valley business interests were touting it as the most important measure ever for the regional economy. The high-speed rail system, with its fast connection between the Bay Area and Southern California, would provide what’s now California’s own flyover — or drive through — territory with a quick, direct link to the state’s business hubs, tying the fast-growing valley more tightly into the greater statewide economy.

That’s the argument people heard and agreed with it when they passed the high-speed rail bond in 2008. It’s an argument that still hasn’t been refuted.

In 2008, voters decided that the statewide benefits of a high-speed rail system outweighed the inevitable localized dislocations and other problems that were guaranteed to be part of such a huge public works project.

There’s arguments that can — and have — been made about the cost and scope of the project and there have been ongoing efforts to work out compromises on many of those issues. But no project that stretches across much of the length of the state is going to be built without making some people unhappy. That’s a price the voters of California elected to pay.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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